Rob and I strive to keep our promises. To other people and to ourselves. We take our words and commitments very seriously.
These two factual states of being were in direct conflict last week as Rob and I repeatedly stayed up way too late watching daily videos of the increasingly photogenic volcanic activity on Hawaii’s Big Island.
About 25 years ago, after voluntarily watching several hours of mesmerizing family vacation video of lava slowly building new Hawaiian landscape, Rob and I made a promise to each other. We agreed that the next time Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted, we would be there.
For as long as Rob can remember, he has dreamed of seeing a volcano erupt. He still takes it personally that I saw Mount St. Helens burp just a tiny bit about 14 years ago. I saw it in my rear-view mirror and it was very small, but Rob still holds a grudge. Me, I just like adventure. Preferably with a plan.
Late last Wednesday night, after consulting our schedule and flight options and Rusty the Lava Rooster, we uncharacteristically planned a spontaneous weekend trip to Hawaii to go gawk at Madame Pele’s mad fire skillz. We had less than 36 hours until departure. We got back this morning.
Thanks to doomsday media coverage, it was quite easy to find cheap, last-minute flights to Kona…especially if one is willing to endure the torture of red-eye departures. Similarly, well-priced rental cars and modest lodging were found with just a few internet clicks. Honestly, the entire trip…including the helicopter tour…cost less than rent on our apartment in the early 1990s. I find this information both compelling and dangerous.
As we hurriedly prepared for our adventure, Rob and I agreed this was either going to be the coolest thing we had ever done…or the stupidest. Spoiler alert: COOLEST!!
Nevertheless, we were both quite nervous. Purposely going to an area from which people were reportedly fleeing was admittedly a touch unwise. As such, we were both reluctant to alert our families of our travel plans.
One dad was quite excited for us and said, “I know you will be safe.” Another dad replied, “This better be a joke.” A mom warned that the never-ever-sensationalizing Weather Channel was reporting residents were being issued breathing masks due to harmful air quality and that provisions were running low. Our excitement and anxiety mounted in mostly equal proportions.
Our suitcases were stuffed with all the provisions necessary for your typical Hawaiian get-away:
- thick-soled – and hopefully lava-friendly – hiking boots
- a collapsible cooler for extra water
- lightweight face masks
- a pair of professional-grade, multi-purpose air respirators
- multiple packets of lens wipes to clean all eyeglasses, cameras, and cell phones of any errant ash fall
- clothes we didn’t mind tossing if Mother Nature ruined them via lava, ash, acid-rain, the Apocalypse, etc.
- extra clothes for several days in case the airport closed
- pajamas that would be appropriate if one were to find themselves in an Evacuation Shelter
|You might find it surprising that Rob was never a Boy Scout|
I tossed in our swim suits at the last minute, mostly because it seemed sacrilegious to travel to Hawaii without them. They returned to Woodhaven dry and unused.
We arrived in Kona at about 1:00pm local time on Friday. Although the sky was cloudy (officially “vog” – volcanic smog), there was no smell to the air or any indication whatsoever that anything dramatic was happening anywhere nearby. Indeed, the erupting volcano was 50 miles away so the hazy air we were seeing was thanks to trade winds.
Actually, I take that back. There was ONE indication that maybe something was up.
Deciding we wanted something cheap and fast for lunch before embarking on our three-hour drive to the other side of the island, we popped into the Kona Costco for a hot dog, slice of pizza, and fruit smoothie.
As we enjoyed our bargain meal, we noticed that at least 75% of the shopping carts were toting brand new air purifiers. Many with more than one. While there might have been an amazing sale, I’m guessing the locals were tired of their gunky air and the national media’s insistence of imminent asphyxiation.
|Some carts had 3 or 4 air purifiers. They were clearly over it.|
|No shortage of provisions here. Thanks for the|
panic, Weather Channel.
Our motel was in Hilo, about 20 miles from the lava action and 25 miles from the volcano spitting out ash. And yes, that’s probably an important detail to note: there are currently two main areas of geologic interest.
The Kilauea volcano (known locally as Halemaʻumaʻu) is conveniently located in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (currently closed due to “increased volcanic activity” – oh the irony). She is releasing energy from her crater in the form of steam and ash.
Kilauea is also the source of the fast-moving, fountaining lava pushing eastward that is making for utterly remarkable videos splattered all over the internet. The lava is spewing out hundreds of feet high along fissures that are increasing in number every day (last count as of this typing is Fissure 22).
These fissures are 25 miles east of the crater in neighborhoods in a small community called the Puna District. Those neighborhoods are now officially considered a Natural Disaster Area and are off-limits to anyone who isn’t a resident, military, or first-responder. Many road-blocks are in place. Trust me. We found ‘em all. In related news, Hawaiian police are quite friendly.
Our motel was a perfect home-base. It was quiet, comfortable, friendly, and oddly populated mostly by locals. I was really confused at first, thinking how interesting it was that these large Hawaiian families all vacation together and tote in tubs of rice and vegetables and fruit to their rooms. They all seemed quite at home at the motel while also not really giving off a “we’re on vacation!” vibe.
Rob finally flicked on the switch for the light bulb in my brain. These families staying with us were not on vacation; they had been evacuated. We tried to give them as much space and respect and loving smiles as possible.
We spent all of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in three places: Hilo; the lava area (especially the town of Pāhoa); and the ash area…particularly the town of Volcano and the golf course which was the site of this viral photo.
We put a lot of miles on our rental car while covering a rather small area. Without a plan of any sort -- other than to see what we could see -- we relied heavily on Google Maps and a sense of adventure to guide each day’s scouting. And yes, we definitely “drove it like it’s a rental” a few times. Oops.
We found favorite spots quickly. The Pāhoa Transfer Station, which was almost attacked by lava in 2014, was the highest elevation point we could climb to. We scrambled up on the porous lava field in rain, shine, daylight, and soft evening lava glow hoping to spot the tops of lava fountains. We never quite saw what we hoped to see, but we did come across a number of locals who had the same idea.
|Lava flow from 2014. It oozed out the fence and almost|
took out the transfer station just to the right of this photo.
Watch this fantastic 6 minute video to see this
lava flow in action (click here)
|Day time glow and chemical clouds from the transfer station|
|Night time glow from the same spot (more or less)|
The first night, we found our way into a neighborhood called Nanawale Estates. It was the closest neighborhood we could get to near the lava flow. We went poking around the ramshackle homes nestled in the jungle, hoping to find a clearing in the trees to spot a fountain.
Although the fountains were not visible, the glow from them definitely was.
We parked on a gravel road and got out of the car. The air was warm and moist, the sky behind us pitch black. The sky in front of us was otherworldly. The center – which changed shape as the obscured lava below it bubbled and spewed – was a hot, bright orange with more red than yellow. Radiating from the center were shades of reddish orange and orangish purple. There were magentas and red-violets and colors like the pulp of a pink grapefruit. The lava glow was essentially that whole red-purple-inching-towards-orange section of the chromatically arranged Crayon box.
|My best attempt at capturing the colors. My camera...and|
its operator...are a bit limited.
The lava palette in the sky was accompanied by a sci-fi symphony. With mere seconds between them, the earth in front of us was speaking with groans and rumbles and explosions. The explosions were methane gas and they were startling each time. The rumbles sounded like jet engines, but more like fighter jets and less like commercial airliners. The rumbles were higher-pitched with more force and less girth if that makes any sense. I’m guessing the rumbles were the sounds of the lava rivers as well as the lava hitting the earth’s floor after fountaining. There was also a forceful, concentrated wind sound, like the air dryers in a car wash. I decided that sound was Madame Pele’s breath forcing the lava out of the earth’s inner core and into fountains.
In the most eerie and soothing way, the volcanic sounds had a constant back-up chorus of frogs. Tiny tree frogs called coqui frogs because of the high-pitched “ko-kee” sound they make. Hawaii has declared them an invasive species, so apparently they are everywhere even though we could only hear them and never saw any. Their cheerful whistles created such an incongruous, perfectly “Jurassic Park” contrast to the volcanic explosions. Their happy chirps bought me peace as I tried to envision the raw, liquid power and heat beyond the trees.
Rob and I stood there in the glowing, explosive, frogged jungle for not nearly long enough. But I quickly knew it was a moment I would always remember. It was magical and eerie and utterly unfamiliar to hear the earth speak…and in such a variety of languages.
Cellphone-quality audio of the earth talking
Another favorite spot was the check point at the intersection of Highway 132 and Pohoiki Road just above Leilani Estates. That is the neighborhood with so many fissures and incredible lava videos from residents.
This check point was the closest we could get to the lava.
On Saturday night, we and just a couple other cars parked along the side of the road and stood outside, reverently watching the glow, listening to the symphony, and hoping for a glimpse of a fountain top.
The few of us who spoke did so in whispers. There was a respect and awe for what we were witnessing and experiencing that absolutely commanded silence.
We were on a tree-covered ridge and the lava was a couple hundred feet below us. Rob and I convinced ourselves we saw the tiniest specks of lava fountaining in the tiniest holes in the trees. Looking back, we were right.
|The bright spot light at the check point added a very|
odd and surreal quality to the light and experience
|Not to mention it was fun to take photos using|
its light to silhouette stuff
We returned to The Check Point several times throughout our visit. We wanted to see what it was like in the day time. Not nearly as magical. We could see the slightest pinkish orangish yellowish tinge to the clouds, but that could have been chemicals as much as lava reflection. Much like Las Vegas, the excitement of a lava flow happens at night.
|I hardly recognized the road in the day light. It was so|
magical at night and so strangely ordinary during the day.
After scouting it out during the day, we returned to Lava Tree State Monument at night and scrambled up on some tall curbs to see if we could see any fountains. No luck. But the glow-lit Albizia trees provided some interesting photos, and we also met a nice woman and son who live in the Nanawale neighborhood we had been lurking in. We commiserated about the Transfer Station and said we might see them there later after we did our rounds at The Check Point.
|The friendly locals identified the trees for us. I loved seeing|
them silhouetted by the lava glow.
|Night time selfies with a digital camera by lava glow|
are very challenging...and kind of spooky.
Sunday night at The Check Point was a zoo. Either word had gotten out or just more people were lava-touring. Regardless, there were cars lined up all along the narrow road just short of the police block. The chatter was a little louder, with more kids and larger families. Some people were sitting on their truck cabs trying to get just a little more elevation. Completely distracted, people unknowingly wandered into the two-lane road, resulting in a few honks from understandably frustrated residents who were just trying to get in and out of their personal natural disaster.
But we were all gathered for a reason. We could finally see the lava fountains. It was incredible.
|I wasn't able to get a photo of the lava fountains, but they were|
in the brightest part of this photo at the top of the bushes
to the left of the arrow sign in the middle.
We don’t know whether the lava had built up the ground to provide a higher launch pad, or if the fountains were spewing with more force. All we know is that we could finally, undeniably see the tops of lava shooting up in bright yellowish orange streams and cascading down in reddish glowing chunks.
The light from the lava sparked like fireworks or hot embers popping in a fireplace. It was those sparks that we had seen glimpses of the night before. The liquid danced with a weight thicker than water. It sort of looked like what might happen if you sat a bottle of really good (thick) maple syrup on a table and gave it a sudden squeeze to see how high you could get the syrup to go.
We could have stayed there for hours watching the lava dance above and among the Albizias…and I’m quite sure we would have…except I started to sense it was time to leave. I began to notice just the slightest tickle in the back of my throat. The skin on my arms started to itch and tingle just a tiny bit. My Little Voice that has warned me of numerous dangers in the past told me, “Now would be a good time to leave.”
I whispered to Rob, “I’m going to trust this. It’s time to leave.” He agreed that the wind had shifted just a little bit and although we couldn’t smell anything, the chemical-laden steam clouds above us were indeed inching our direction.
We walked just a little closer to take one last look. I noticed the police officer was prepared with a gas mask. That was new; he didn’t have that the night before. It’s quite possible that we would have been told to leave soon anyway. But that was OK. We knew we still had Monday.
Except that we didn’t.
When we returned to The Check Point on Monday morning, it had been moved. It was now farther up the road. We could no longer see anything except the lava glow. We no longer had access to Lava Tree Monument. We could no longer skulk about in Nanawale Estates.
Whether the looky-loos were getting out of hand (totally likely) or the fissures and lava were getting dangerously close to a nearby geothermal plant (also totally likely), the end result was that we were extraordinarily lucky to have been there on Sunday night to see the lava. That might have been the last time for a non-resident to catch even the barest glimpse with their own eyes.
|Gas mask at the ready|
We did manage to see the lava fountains from one other vantage point. We took a helicopter tour.
When we booked the tour while still at Woodhaven, we were warned they weren’t allowed to fly right over the lava. We totally understood that. But we were still hoping to get a closer view than we did. Although I am absolutely glad we did the helicopter ride, I really wish we had been able to see a bit more. I think my expectations were a tad high. Thanks, national media and internet live feeds.
As of Saturday, there was a 5-mile restriction over the active fissures on air traffic aside from USGS and others taking official photographs. That radius is probably going to increase as more chemicals are released into the air (hello, laze!).
Thanks to a pretty good zoom, I was able to get a couple of photos of the lava fountains. We were also able to clearly see them with our naked eyes (no zooms or binoculars) which was breathtaking.
When I saw the first fountain…and then the line of them…I literally gasped and grabbed Rob’s arm in awe and excitement. The fountains were jumping into the air as if there were a lava-filled fire hose under the ground. They must have been enormous, to be so big at such a distance.
|Laze. Interestingly, even a local we|
chatted with had never heard the term.
Now it will soon be a crossword favorite.
|Fountains in Leilani Estates.|
|My best shot. Click on it to see a larger image. Man, those|
fountains are huge!
The other spot we hung out in was out near the Kilauea main crater itself. We weren’t allowed to stop for 12 miles in the Volcanoes National Park, but there weren’t any signs saying how fast we had to go. So when nobody was around, Rob drove veeeerrrry sloooowly a few times so we could gawk at the cracks in the roads.
Although I only felt one small earthquake while we were there (a familiar shake from my life in California which I hadn’t felt in 15 years; it wasn’t big enough to wake Rob up), the ground there is in pretty constant motion to some degree. At least according to the seismographs. We noticed that the cracks in the road got wider just in the four days we were looking at them.
|All of these cracks were new to this eruption.|
The spray paint is so scientists can track movements.
|These looked like stretchmarks in the asphalt.|
They were noticeably thinner the day before.
We spent a fair amount of time on the golf course about 2 miles north of the active Kilauea crater. Yes, the course is still open and it is safe to play there as long as the trade winds are going. A shift in the wind direction makes life very different for everyone along the southern coast of the island.
We got super lucky on Sunday to catch a break in the rain and see an amazing plume of steam and ash billow out of the crater right in front of us. Judging from the locals joining us on the 10th tee as we all messed up the games of the golfers trying to play through, we got there just as the release was starting.
It was stunning how quiet it was. For only two miles away, I would expect that so much force would produce a sound of some sort. Instead, the only sounds were birds chirping, people whispering, and a guy’s drone buzzing over our heads.
|Zoom in to see the drone's view. It estimated|
the plume was 4,000ft tall from the crater.
Again, there was a reverence as a scattered group of about 20 of us watched the white, grey, and steel grey clouds bloom and build and fade and bloom again. It was mesmerizing to watch clouds form…huge, puffy, cotton-ball clouds…right before my eyes. There was clearly lots of steam being released from the crater. It was beautiful.
We didn’t get hit with any ash; the wind was blowing the plume out across the ocean. The air did have a smell, though. It was a mixture of sulfur and smoked meat. Imagine eating a Hickory Farms Beef Stick in Yellowstone Park. It smelled like that.
At first I thought the smell was from the plume we were witnessing, but it was actually from the lava (and later, laze – gases emitted when lava hits the ocean) 25 miles away. This was confirmed on other visits to the golf course when I could still detect that meaty sulfur smell, but no plume was in sight.
|My first view as we were walking (ok, trotting excitedly)|
from the parking lot.
|Yes, people were still playing golf during this little distraction.|
|It was fascinating watching the colors change as different|
material was tossed out of the crater.
|Proof we were there.|
|I have to admit, I'm starting to think I should call my|
hair color "volcanic eruption gray"
Due to lots of clouds and moved check points, there wasn’t much volcanic stuff to see on Monday, so we took a slow, scenic drive back to Kona for our 10:10pm flight.
Once in Kona, we had time to relax in an oceanside bar, wander around a resort, and sneak a peak at a luau. It was jarring to see so many tourists. We saw lots of sunburns and selfie sticks and honeymooners idly playing with their new rings. We were not looking for stereotypical Hawaii on this trip, so it felt weird to finally see it. But it was comforting to see evidence that THAT Hawaiian experience can still be had even in the face of Madame Pele playing on the other side on the island.
The few hours yesterday in Kona was such a contrast to the being-amongst-the-locals vibe we felt in Hilo and the Puna District. In Pāhoa especially (the accessible town closest to the lava), we blissfully felt like oddball tourists. The people who joined us at The Check Point and the Transfer Station and farther west on the golf course were all mostly locals…equally as enthralled by the geologic wonders with the added tension of knowing people personally impacted by them.
For the most part, everyone was going about their normal daily lives…grocery shopping, attending kids’ soccer games, meeting friends for lunch, mowing their lawns, walking their dogs. Yes, there is a volcano erupting and lava spewing and new words like vog and laze are entering our national vocabulary. But all of that activity is very contained, both by geography and local authorities. Given the circumstances, I actually felt very safe during our four days stalking Mother Nature. I knew we could drive out of danger pretty quickly, and I saw with my own eyes that the local authorities and scientists have a very good handle on things in terms of keeping the general public safe.
|View from our lovely patio dinner in Pāhoa.|
"Isn't the glow from the lava beautiful? Would you like
to see our wine list?" What a surreal meal it was.
Rob and I were both keenly aware that on this visit we were being tourists in a natural disaster; that what we were so desperate to see was also destroying the livelihoods and homes of people around us. We tried to be very respectful and aware. We took our cues from locals we stood next to about how much excitement to express as we watched Madame Pele flex her muscles. We heeded road blocks and flashing signs without attempts to convince or talk our way past them. We thanked the police and military people we encountered for keeping us safe. We tried to stay out of the way while also peering with wide eyes. We dropped off our thankfully unused masks and respirators at a donation command center in Pāhoa much to the surprise and gratitude of the local guys wearing reflective vests…making me wish we had brought a suitcase’s worth.
We did our best to travel with aloha and stay classy, while also fulfilling a promise and one of Rob’s lifelong dreams. Cheers to being spontaneous!
|Volcano Winery ~ Conveniently located just|
up the road from the golf course. Because
when volcanoes erupt, apparently we drink wine.